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How can a virtual office work?? December 5, 2008

Posted by Jeremy in Business, Green Business, Resourcing, Virtual Office.
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I am a very adament proponent of the virtual office/remote employee/telecommuting model of business.  I think that it is the next logical office environment for many businesses and business people.  In today’s environment where expense reductions are a huge priority, energy costs are high (or will be high again), the green movement is charging, and technology is vastly improving the virtual office has not only become feasible but even sensible.  I believe that soon for many people it will become a no brainer and then it will become a standard.  Now, those days are still a little ways away and some businesses won’t work in that model.

Problems

Now, I have heard many positives and from other people many negatives.  I think that the biggest thing that has to change to support the virtual environment is management style.  In today’s environment many managers manage using presence.  Their presence is supposed to be the reason that you are responsible and get your work done.  That is where the adage “The cat’s away the mice will play” came from.  The manager is there and he’ll be looking over your shoulder so you better get things done. 

As an offshoot of that many managers believe that they have to be able to walk out to your desk and sit down and watch you work in order to portray a sense of urgency.  Those same managers are usually the micromanagers that want to watch what time you “clock in” and “clock out”, how long your lunch was, your phone records, your internet logs, your conversations, your meetings, your bathroom breaks, how much coffee you drank, etc.  In this way they can not be as worried about the quality of the hire, they can just lord over you.

Now, I will say those models will not work in a virtual world.  They can’t.  You can’t be present in a virtual office.  You can’t stop by my desk if you’re in New York and I’m in Jackson Wyoming.  It will not work.  Many managers are very scared by this concept.  They don’t see how they can manage without having these “tools”. 

I have also heard that it’s too easy to just not do your work.  Also, it’s too easy for the workers to get distracted.  I agree to some extent and for some people.  That is why hiring the right people and proper management is so important.

Change in management

I just read an article in Entrepreneur magazine that describes some of the techniques that will work well in that environment.   The underlying concept was quite simple … Proper Communication.  Virtual offices require communication.

In the IT development world we have a concept that is called Agile Development.  Within that school of thought there is model called the Scrum model.   Scrum has a few concepts that would help in a virtual environment: sprints, burn down sheets, and Scrum meetings.

First, the sprint.  What is a sprint?  It is a timeframe (typically a month) in which a pre-designated and agreed to amount of work will get done by the team.  This sets the timeframe and amount of work and it is agreed to by all parties.  It is NOT allowed to be extended.

Second, burn down charts.  This is the list of items that will be completed during the sprint.  This list is updated on a daily basis as a running tally of what is left.  If an issue arises, items are removed from the burn down but the sprint is not extended.

Third, scrum meetings.  Scrum meetings are sometimes called the daily standup.  They are standup meetings that happen everyday but are limited in timeframe.  They have very specific guidelines.  They start on time, they are limited to 15 minutes, only stakeholders can speak, and the meetings are the same time and place every day.

So now you have a list of todo’s, a timeframe, and a daily checkpoint.  You have built an accountability structure.  It is very quick to see parts that are sliding.  You have limited your exposure by using daily checkpoints and monthly sprints.  You have a designated amount of work so you have a defined goal.

The Scrum concept is a development concept that was designed based on samples and principles from the manufacturing world.  So the core ideas can be utilized anywhere.  The basic model of accountability seems to be an excellent model for virtual offices.

Accountability

The one other huge issue that has to be corrected is to encourage managers to hold their staff accountable.  In an office it’s easier to get away with underperforming employees because they can be micromanaged.  In a virtual world, you can’t do that.  You need to be quick and decisive.  You need to setup a quick method to reprimand.  There needs to be a distinct set of criteria and a equally distinct set of steps for accountability.  Companies can not afford to allow dead weight in a virtual office.  They need to be decisive when someone is not pulling their weight.

As part of the accountability process, the manager has to hire the right people.  You must hire people who can do the job and can follow the rules of the road.  They need to understand the rules and how the team accountability works.  The resource will need to be open to that.  Also, you are going to look for people who strive for success.

This process is eased by using the Scrum-type structure.  It sets measurable goals.  The resources agree to the goals.  It measures the goals.  All you have to add is an accountability process. 

The Wrapping

Well this became a long post.  I am very passionate about this topic.  I believe that the key to the transition to a virtual office is the change of mindset in management.  It must be structured better and more decisive.  If those things are put in place, the virtual world can be very successful.  It is where the world is headed.  We need to embrace it.  In the global economy luddites are not going to succeed.

What are your thoughts?

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Employees are company’s most important asset December 4, 2008

Posted by Jeremy in Business, Resourcing.
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Okay, so I am not sure that this completely fits in the realm of efficiency, green, technology, or many of the other things I talk about but I think it is very important.  I think it is of key importance to any business.  I truly believe that employees are a business’s most important asset.  I know that isn’t the idea that many businesses run under but I am a firm believer in that concept.  If you treat people well they will treat you and your customers well and in return your business will do well.  Vice versa is also true.

I just found an interesting post on American Express’s OPEN site.  It is titled “As the Economy Declines Should We Expect Service to Increase?“.  In it the author describes an event that shows what happens when companies don’t encourage this type of attitude with their employees.  An excerpt of the scenario is:

“I was listening in to a customer call,” she said (you know, “this call may be monitored for training purposes.”) “And the customer was explaining a problem with the product. It wasn’t an area of expertise for the employee and so I expected her to say something like, “I’ll have to transfer you to the right department.” However what the employee said was shocking:

“I really don’t care.”

Now does this necessarily mean that the company was the problem and the employee didn’t have a bad attitude?  Of course not, you can always get a bad apple but there are questions the business should be asking. 

First of all, how do I increase morale in my business?  This is important.  And… no it isn’t a “Beatings will continue until morale improves” scenario.  Many times employees are put in scenarios where the customers are unhappy and no one is listening to the employee’s ideas so they feel powerless to help.  This can be a huge drain on morale.  There are many things can lend to decreased morale.

Second question, are my employees a high priority in my business and do I demonstrate that?  When the economy slowed what was the businesses reaction to compensate?  Did it pull back on benefits?  Did you freeze wages?  Did the perks stay the same?  Have people been laid off and others asked to pick up the load?  Many of these things are understandable but remember what these decisions portray to your employees.

Third question, do I empower my employees?  Do ask for your employee’s ideas on projects?  Do you listen to feedback?  Do you delegate big projects to employees?  If employees feel like they are trusted and valued to handle tasks they will take on an ownership mindset.  They will focus on the benefit of the organization. 

Obviously, there are many other issues that should be considered.  There are many times where layoffs are the right decision and where you can’t delegate to every employee but I would say you need to consider how those items are handled.  Also, they shouldn’t be every day occurrances.  Many morale issues are fairly easy to solve if they are handled early but will quickly snowball if not dealt with.  As simple as it is with employees the old Golden Rule of “Do unto others as you would want done to you” can be a very valid technique to keep morale up.  Value your employees just as you would want to be valued.  If you don’t they may not value your customers.